By Jaya Chakrabarti
Chair of the Mayor for Bristol campaign
Liverpool has just been promised £130million for their city from central government. The reason? They said they were going to elect a mayor.
This week, Liverpool City Council voted by an overwhelming majority to bypass a referendum on the topic and go straight for the election itself this May.
The leader of Liverpool City Council said: “As far as I’m concerned, it’s a good deal for the city.” The overall potential benefit of getting a mayor for Liverpool is estimated at £1bn.
It’s as easy as that. So why isn’t Bristol doing it? We do have the chance. The Government through its Localism Bill, passed just three months ago, has offered all twelve core cities in the UK, including Bristol, a referendum on whether or not they want an elected mayor. If we vote yes, we get our mayoral election in November.
Research shows that Britain is one of the most centralised states in the world. But in a global, connected age, cities are the future – small, sustainable, loyal and local. That is where we want to be.
That’s why the government is rolling back some of the centralisation imposed by the last government, putting power back into the hands of localities. The chance to have an elected mayor for Bristol is part of that movement and I think it’s one that would suit Bristol really well – because most Bristolians are very loyal to Bristol itself. We want to pull together and work to prosper, and our own elected mayor would help us do that.
Plus, with all the cuts and slashing of benefits going on, I don’t think we’re in a position to turn down anything that will bring such badly-needed funds into our city. If Bristol would get half a billion pounds from this, or even a hundred million, or even 25 million, why on earth would we want to say no?
The city council says it’s a bad idea, because an elected mayor will cost more money (the mayor’s salary would be funded by the council). But the facts already show that that cost will be recompensed hundreds of times over.
At our campaign, A Mayor for Bristol, we want it to happen. Bristol has a ceremonial lord mayor, a councillor elected by other councillors, a traditional role that has been going on for hundreds of years. That’s not what we’re talking about. This would be a new mayor, with positive powers to help the city, elected directly by Bristolians. An elected mayor is the public face of the city and its ambassador. His or her full-time job is to help Bristol locally, nationally and internationally.
Sometimes the results are wacky and surprising. Ten years ago, Hartlepool elected the mascot of the town’s football team, a monkey called H’Angus, to be their Mayor (he said he’d put free bananas in every school). But the monkey turned out to be 28-year-old Stuart Drummond, who used the mascot to promote his campaign, as an independent. Ten years on, Drummond has earned his stripes. These days he’s England’s only three-term-elected mayor, and won 10th place in World Mayor 2010. Hartlepool has never looked back.
Worldwide, cities that have elected mayors do better. Chicago has become a global business centre since electing a mayor; Auckland in New Zealand has turned into a major Pacific Rim player. London’s central traffic problems and public transport were sorted at a stroke once an elected mayor took over. In each of these cases and more, it was the elected mayor that made the difference.
And now Liverpool. They’ve jumped at the chance the government is offering the 12 UK core cities, of which Bristol is one. Since the Localism Act became law, our city has had a referendum – actually given to us by Whitehall – arranged for May 3. The referendum is for every Bristolian to vote on whether or not we want an elected mayor.
If we say we do – and I really hope Bristolians will – then we move on to the actual mayoral election for our city in November.
So what powers would our Mayor have? There’s room for each city to negotiate this with central government. Liverpool is already negotiating for mayoral powers over housing, regeneration, the skills curriculum and welfare programmes. Elected mayors generally have three core powers – over transport, strategic/spatial planning (what’s built in the city and where), and economic development – lifting the profile of the city.
This is so badly needed in Bristol, which is famous for tying itself in bureaucratic knots on these very issues. Remember the trams that never happened? The arena project that fell apart? And as for the stadium – let’s not even go there.
The council has been saying that a mayor for Bristol would find it difficult to work with the surrounding unitary authorities of South Gloucestershire, North Somerset and BANES. I don’t think so. The elected mayor would turbo-charge our new Local Enterprise Partnership and make sure we got what we needed. The mayor would be the face of our city in Britain and the world, telling everyone what Bristol does best and attracting huge inward investment. It would put Bristol on the map.
There are concerns that once elected, we could be stuck with the wrong person – that there might be corruption, or that a four-year term is too long. That’s not really the case. A four-year term gives continuity – it’s a commitment. And if some kind of disaster really did happen, there is always the power of recall, an emergency power to remove the mayor. It’s a backup plan that in most cases is never used or needed.
I know Barbara Janke feels that an elected mayor wouldn’t do us much good. I disagree – and so do the volunteers, from all walks of life and all kinds of backgrounds, who are helping with our campaign. We want a bright future for our city – a twentieth-century, global and local future, where the name of Bristol is what it should be – out there, doing us good.
I don’t want us to fade away and get ignored in a corner while Liverpool and Leicester and Birmingham shout for their rights and scoop up all the money and business. I think Bristol deserves better. We have bags of vision and passion here, and there’s nothing wrong with our leaders either – but we believe the way that leadership is structured needs to change now. An elected mayor should unshackle those chains. That’s what our whole campaign is about: allowing Bristol to be as amazing as it deserves.